American colonial style in architecture refers to the era before the United States was born, when emigrants from Europe began settling on the North American continent. Since the period was a long one — spanning 100 years — “colonial style” actually encompasses a few different styles and designs. And there are different regional touches, reflecting the local climate and the influences of the settlers’ native countries.
Overall, though, American colonial style is characterized by a simple elegance and symmetrical, two-story layout. Found throughout the country today, they are many people’s idea of a quintessential traditional home.
History of colonial style
The original American colonial-style homes were built throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Style-wise, they are “based on British homes with an emphasis on functionally serving the needs of a family and withstanding harsh climates,” says Tony Mariotti, CEO and founder of RubyHome, a luxury real estate brokerage in Los Angeles.
Since labor was limited and these homes had to be built quickly, they tended to be relatively easy to construct: a rectangular foundation with clean roof lines, one uniform window size and limited ornamentation. But they were also built with an eye to the future: It became common to add extra rooms and stories as families grew in size and wealth.
As immigrants came to the colonies from other countries, they introduced new styles reminiscent of homes in their birthplace. These other styles incorporated new elements, like the gambrel roof (a two-sided roof with two slopes on each side) typical of Dutch architecture, but still kept the characteristic functionality and symmetrical, squarish silhouette.
Colonial-style homes briefly fell out of popularity in the first half of the 19th century in favor of more ornate Victorian-style homes. But they experienced a revival in the 1880s, sparked by the celebrations of the American Centennial in 1876.
That revival has never really ended, but endured throughout the country for most of the last 140 years. Still, colonial-style homes have been adjusted to best suit their local habitat. “In California, the American Colonial style was substituted by Spanish Colonial Revival and Mediterranean homes, which are more suitable for warmer climates,” says Mariotti.
What makes a house colonial style?
Balance and symmetry are characteristics of both the interior and exterior of most colonial homes. There are minimal decorative elements. While simple, the silhouette is a wide, expansive one, reflecting the abundance of land and open space that marked the settlers’ new continent.
American Colonial homes are generally characterized by a square or rectangular facade, a central entrance and windows symmetrically placed on either side of the entrance. They are typically made of wood, stone or brick and will generally have uniformly sized doors and windows with shutters. The roof is typically side-gabled and dormers are common.
Colonial-style homes tend to have several stories. They usually place bedrooms upstairs with the main floor made up of multiple living spaces and places for the family to gather.
Colonial homes will typically have a “central staircase combined with a foyer adjacent to the entry and a living or dining area at the rear,” says architect Michael Bergin, VP of Platform and co-founder of Higharc, a home automation building platform. Originally, they featured “a large fireplace at each end of the home to maximize heating bedrooms and living areas,” adds Bergin. Built in the days before central heating and cooling systems, they would be laid out to retain warmth in winter and capture cross breezes in summer — a passive sort of HVAC now in vogue in contemporary eco-friendly homes.
Varieties of colonial style
Georgian is the quintessential colonial style, the one most people envision. It is almost always two stories with a central entrance, sometimes marked by columns or porticoes. A small balcony over the entrance or along the roof line is common. Windows are symmetrical and a uniform size with shutters. They are typically brick or stone with white wood columns, but modern variations can be made with vinyl siding.
Early American and saltbox-style colonials dot the landscape throughout New England. This style, one of the simplest, is typically two stories, made of wood. Steep roofs to shed snow and a big central fireplace to stay warm in the harsh winters are typical of the style.
New England/Cape Cod
Cape Cod colonials are most often one story (or a story-and-a-half) with a central chimney and a steeply pitched roof. Over time, dormers were added to Cape Cod-style homes. They have all the typical colonial features of a rectangular shape, central entrance and symmetrical windows.
French-style colonial homes are most typically found in areas that had a large population of French settlers (think New Orleans). These style homes still have the symmetry you’d expect from a colonial but are adapted to their warmer climate — they often boast large front porches, not just on the ground floor but on the second as well. French colonial homes also tend to have flatter roofs.
Dutch and German-style Colonial homes are characterized by their gambrel roof and overhanging eaves, which makes them look barn-like. Dormer windows and a matched pair of chimneys on either side of the house are common, too.
While technically outside the thirteen original colonies — introduced by Spanish colonists in southeastern coastal areas, the West Coast, and the Desert Southwest — these homes did develop around the same time. They are generally made of stucco or adobe with tiled roofs. They typically have light colors on thick walls to keep interiors cool in the summer but retain heat in the winter.
Developing around 1780, Federalist homes are technically separate from colonial-style — the name refers to the early days of the new republic, the federal period — but the two have a lot in common. Colonial style homes typically were more utilitarian, often being made with cheaper but abundant materials that could be found in newly settled areas. Federalist homes were usually made with higher quality brick and — while still understated — incorporated more ornamental features like ironwork and columns.
What is Colonial Revival style?
The Centennial International Exhibition of 1876, held in Philadelphia, renewed Americans’ interest in their pre-independence past. As part of the celebration of their country turning 100, a vogue for century-old styles began to permeate fashions, decorative arts and architecture.
Colonial Revival homes, built in the latter decades of the 19th century, take elements of the original style but are typically much bigger than the ones built during the actual colonial period. They are more ornate, too: Colonial Revival homes typically have more complex roof lines and more ornamentation like fan windows and columns. And of course, they took advantage of contemporary building materials and heating methods.
Buying a colonial-style house
There are several pros and cons to the colonial style to consider.
- Authentic colonial homes allow you to own a part of history.
- Colonial homes are “easy to decorate and look surprisingly good when decorated with contemporary and modern furniture. However, they are incredibly cozy when decorated with antiques and period pieces,” says Mariotti.
- Traditional colonial homes were built to withstand harsh climates and may be cheaper to heat in the winter than other historic houses.
- “A historic colonial home needs to be inspected for proper maintenance with special concern for the framing. Foundations built at that time did not have steel reinforcement, so they are often at risk of falling apart,” says Bergin.
- “If the roof of an American or Dutch Colonial home still has a shake roof, the buyer will have a hard time finding homeowners insurance. Wood roofs are very flammable, and new homeowners must replace them immediately to qualify for insurance,” says Mariotti.
- Multiple-story layout might not be ideal for the elderly or disabled.
What do colonial houses cost?
Colonial-style homes have been built semi-continuously for the last 300+ years. The price you pay for one will vary drastically, depending on whether it’s a landmarked historic home, an inner city fixer-upper, or a custom-built colonial-style home.
A five-year-old new colonial-style in an affluent neighborhood will cost more to purchase but less to maintain than a 300-year-old Colonial in rural Maine.
The cost to build a colonial-style house depends on your location, the size of the house,and the features you want. HomeAdvisor estimates that the cost to build a 3,000-square-foot Colonial would vary from $300,000 to $600,000, but high cost of living areas can expect to pay significantly more for labor and the cost of the land to build on. “All-in construction for a colonial home around 3,000 feet can easily run to $3 million dollars in the Bay Area,” says Bergin.
Final word on colonial-style homes
Originating on the Eastern Seaboard, colonial-style homes can be found throughout the U.S. today. Colonial-style homes are likely to remain a common home style with some variation for the foreseeable future. The simple construction, endless options for additions, and emphasis on clean lines make them timeless, and a classic American style.